RADIO DREAMS: stranger in a strange and funny land

RADIO DREAMS
RADIO DREAMS

The droll dark comedy Radio Dreams explores the ambivalence of the immigrant experience through the portrait of a flamboyant misfit, a man who rides the roller coaster of megalomania and despair. That misfit is Hamid Royani (Mohsen Namjoo), the director of programming at an Iranian radio station in the San Francisco Bay Area. Radio Dreams opens tomorrow for a one-week-only run at the Roxie Theater in San Francisco.

Hamid, an author in Iran, is a man of great certainty, with an unwavering sense of intellectual superiority He assumes that everyone should – and will – buy in to his idiosyncratic taste. This results in extremely random radio programming, and Hamid tries to sabotage everything that he finds vulgar (which is everything that might bring more listeners and revenue to the station.)

With his wild mane and indulgent programming, we first think that Hamid is simply batty. But immigrants to the US generally forge new identities, and we come to understand that Hamid has not, perhaps will not, forge that new identity. His despair is real but it’s hard to empathize with – he might be a legitimate literary figure in Iran, but he’s probably a pompous ass over there, too.

The highlight of Radio Dreams is Hamid’s reaction when he is surprised that Miss Iran USA, whom he has dismissed as a bimbo, might have literary chops that rivaling his.

Hamid has concocted a plan to have Afghanistan’s first rock band visit with the members of Metallica on air, and that’s the movie’s MacGuffin. As we wait to see if Metallica will really show up, the foibles of the radio station crew dot Radio Dreams with moments of absurdity. There are the cheesy commercials about unwanted body hair, Hamid’s obsession with hand sanitizer, a radio jungle played live on keyboards EVERY time, a new employee orientation that focuses on international time zones, along with a station intern compelled to take wrestling lessons.

Writer-director Babak Jalali is an adept storyteller. As the movie opens, we are wondering, why do these guys have musical instruments? Why are they talking about Metallica? What’s with the ON AIR sign? Much of the movie unfolds before Hamid Royani emerges as the centerpiece character.

Hamid is played by the well-known Iranian singer-songwriter Mohsen Namjoo, “Iran’s Bob Dylan”. This is only Namjoo’s second feature film as an actor. He’s a compelling figure, and this is a very fine performance.

Except for Namjoo, the cast is made up of Bay Area actors. Masters of the implacable and the stone face, all of the actors do deadpan really, really well.

As befits the mix of reality and absurdism, here’s a podcast by the characters in Radio Dreams. I saw Radio Dreams at the Camera Cinema Club, and Babak Jalali took Q&A after the screening by phone from Belgium.

Radio Dreams is the second feature for Jalali, an Iranian-born filmmaker living and working in Europe. He shot Radio Dreams with a small crew over only 24 days in San Francisco. About 60% of the dialogue was scripted and 40% improvised. The band in the movie, Kabul Dreams, really is Afghanistan’s first rock band, they did get to meet Metallica in real life and the PARS-FM were filmed at a real Iranian radio station in the Bay Area.

Babak Jalali is a promising filmmaker and Radio Dreams is a movie that we haven’t seen before.

RADIO DREAMS: stranger in a strange and funny land

RADIO DREAMS
RADIO DREAMS

The droll dark comedy Radio Dreams explores the ambivalence of the immigrant experience through the portrait of a flamboyant misfit, a man who rides the roller coaster of megalomania and despair.  That misfit is Hamid Royani (Mohsen Namjoo), the director of programming at an Iranian radio station in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Hamid, an author in Iran, is a man of great certainty, with an unwavering sense of intellectual superiority  He assumes that everyone should – and will – buy in to his idiosyncratic taste.  This results in extremely random radio programming, and Hamid tries to sabotage everything that he finds vulgar (which is everything that might bring more listeners and revenue to the station.)

With his wild mane and indulgent programming, we first think that Hamid is simply batty.  But immigrants to the US generally forge new identities, and we come to understand that Hamid has not, perhaps will not, forge that new identity.   His despair is real but it’s hard to empathize with – he might be a legitimate literary figure in Iran, but he’s probably a pompous ass over there, too.

The highlight of Radio Dreams is Hamid’s reaction when he is surprised that Miss Iran USA, whom he has dismissed as a bimbo, might have literary chops that rivaling his.

Hamid has concocted a plan to have Afghanistan’s first rock band visit with the members of Metallica on air, and that’s the movie’s MacGuffin.  As we wait to see if Metallica will really show up, the foibles of the radio station crew dot Radio Dreams with moments of absurdity.  There are the cheesy commercials about unwanted body hair, Hamid’s obsession with hand sanitizer, a radio jungle played live on keyboards EVERY time, a new employee orientation that focuses on international time zones, along with a station intern compelled to take wrestling lessons.

Writer-director Babak Jalali is an adept storyteller.  As the movie opens, we are wondering, why do these guys have musical instruments? Why are they talking about Metallica? What’s with the ON AIR sign? Much of the movie unfolds before Hamid Royani emerges as the centerpiece character.

Hamid is played by the well-known Iranian singer-songwriter Mohsen Namjoo, “Iran’s Bob Dylan”.  This is only Namjoo’s second feature film as an actor.  He’s a compelling figure, and this is a very fine performance.

Except for Namjoo, the cast is made up of Bay Area actors.  Masters of the implacable and the stone face, all of the actors do deadpan really, really well.

As befits the mix of reality and absurdism, here’s a podcast by the characters in Radio Dreams.  I saw Radio Dreams at the Camera Cinema Club, and Babak Jalali took Q&A after the screening by phone from Belgium.

Radio Dreams is the second feature for Jalali, an Iranian-born filmmaker living and working in Europe.  He shot Radio Dreams with a small crew over only 24 days in San Francisco.   About 60% of the dialogue was scripted and 40% improvised.  The band in the movie, Kabul Dreams, really is Afghanistan’s first rock band, they did get to meet Metallica in real life and the PARS-FM were filmed at a real Iranian radio station in the Bay Area.

Babak Jalali is a promising filmmaker and Radio Dreams is a movie that we haven’t seen before.

THE SALESMAN: an authentic slow burn with very high stakes

Taraneh Alidoosti and Shahab Hosseini in THE SALESMAN. Photo: Cohen Media Group
Taraneh Alidoosti and Shahab Hosseini in THE SALESMAN. Photo: Cohen Media Group

The Salesman is another searing and authentic film from Iranian writer-director Asghar Farhadi. Set in contemporary Iran, a young educated, middle class couple (Shahab Hosseini and Taraneh Alidoosti) has to change apartments in a rush. He’s a literature teacher by day, and the two are starring in a production of Death of a Salesman. The new apartment is sketchy, and something traumatic happens to the wife, something that she says she can’t fully remember. He embarks on a whodunit while doing everything he can to support her – but it turns out that he’s not equipped to keep up with her reactions to events. By the end, the two must determine the fate of a third character, and the stakes are very high.

Farhadi is perhaps the world’s leading master of the family psychological drama. The two Farhadi films that have received wide release in the US are the award-winning A Separation and The Past . Those two films are constructed with astonishing brilliance and originality, and the audience shifts allegiance between the characters as Farhadi reveals each new layers of his stories. The story in The Salesman is more linear than in its sister dramas, but it is compelling nonetheless. Both A Separation and The Past can be rented on DVD from Netflix and Redbox and can be streamed from Amazon, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube and Google Play.

Farhadi does not make Feel Good movies; his dramas are challenging. That’s because he makes the audience care so much about his characters that we ache along with them. The payoff is that Farhadi delivers genuine human behavior and authentic human emotion.

Cinequest: Happenings of the Eighth Day

happeningsThe extremely trippy Happenings of the Eighth Day is a pure art film, for better and for worse.  It consists of some live action sketches wedged into some moody montages of characters driving around or walking on the beach and lots of evocative snippets of file footage and news photos. The sketches often center around a movie-within-a-movie and are tongue-in-cheek funny.  The fourth wall is often broken, with the script tossed into and out of scenes and, most hilariously, when the boom lowers into a scene and then the sound guy himself sits down with the actors.  The iconic movie images range from the pioneering silent The Kiss to Fritz the Cat.  There are very graphic and provocative film clips from the Holocaust, 9/11, Sarajevo and other horrors.

Some random comments:  There’s a frequent use of video insets.  Happenings employs the handheld background used famously in the Danish The Five Obstructions (see photo below).  Even by Hollywood standards, the actresses were merely ornamental.

Happenings isn’t about a conventional narrative, so what’s going on here? Writer/director/actor/cinematographer/co-editor/actor Arya Ghavamian says that the theme is the oppression which he felt in his boyhood Iran and continues to feel in American society, a feeling he describes as “consistent paranoia”.  Hmmm.

Here’s my ambivalence:  With its humor, vivid imagery and driving music, Happenings almost worked for me as eye candy.  But the clash between the smirking characters and the images of real atrocities seemed exploitative, and it put me off.  Now, if you buy into Ghavamian’s explicit intention – a contemplation of oppression – the atrocity shots are justified, but I didn’t find that message coherent, nor did I think that it fit within the appealing overall slyness of the film.  But, with the exception of a couple sketches that ran on too long and some moments that were annoying or offensive, I found it pretty entertaining.

Happenings of the Eighth Day is a VERY low-budget film, and its sound is particularly bad and its editing is particularly good.

I saw Happenings of the Eighth Day at its World Premiere at Cinequest in the San Jose Repertory Theatre and, I’ve got to say, no premiere in the history of cinema could have been any closer to its filming locations.  The San Jose Rep is on the Paseo de San Antonio and 75% of the movie’s exteriors were shot along the Paseo from the Cesar Chavez fountains and the Fairmont Hotel past the Post Office to The Movie Gourmet’s own personal bench between Philz Coffee and the Tangerine salon. A former Philz barrista even appears in the film.

happenings2

 

The Past: how life resists our desire to make everything tidy

bejo In the French movie The Past, a French woman has requested that her estranged husband return from Iran to expedite their divorce; he obliges and walks into a family life that gets messier by the minute.  Why does she suddenly want the divorce right now? Can she marry her current boyfriend?  Who are the fathers of all of her kids?  What happened to her current boyfriend’s wife – and why?  As the answers are revealed one-by-one, our understanding of the events and characters evolve.

This shifting viewpoint is similar that into writer-director Asghar Farhadi’s Oscar-winning Iranian film A Separation, which I summarized as “brilliant film/tough to watch”.  Farhadi’s art reflects life at its messiness – especially how life resists our desire to make everything tidy and symmetrical.  It all makes for a compelling drama – we care about each character and what’s going to happen.  Each development further complicates the story – all the way up to the movies final shot, which adds another pivotal complication.

The Artist’s Berenice Bejo won Best Actress at Cannes for playing the woman completely overstressed by the pressures that her own choices have brought upon her; (her careworn character is just about 180 degrees from Peppy Miller in The Artist).  The acting is uniformly excellent, and especially by the child actors.

One more thing – in writing and directing the part of the teenage daughter, Farhadi shows that he has a superb understanding of teenage girls.  He captures the mix of self-absorption, volatile unpredictability and the paradoxical yearning for both independence and parental protection, while avoiding turning the character into a sitcom brat.  Indeed, he’s done it before, having directed his own teenage daughter to an excellent performance in A Separation.  This is one of his most notable gifts as a filmmaker.

The realism of The Past may cause some viewers to reflect on their own family drama, so not everyone will find it enjoyable.  Nevertheless, it’s an admirable and thought-provoking story told so very well – right up to that final shot.